Fairly frequently in mainline churches Sunday morning worship brings me hymns and songs from many different eras. John Wesley might come in the same service as Matt Redman, and Fanny Crosby might sneak in on the same day. Sometimes a hymn works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I can’t influence Crosby or Wesley, but I would love to offer a suggestion to those still writing hymns: tell the truth in your lyrics.
Recently an order of worship invited me to sing “Earth and All Stars,” a 1964 hymn appearing in over 20 hymnals. I like the tune by David N. Johnson — actually it stays in my head for days. And I like the idea of the lyric — I don’t know what Herbert Frederick Brokering was aiming for exactly, but it strikes me as an attempt at a modern version of the “Song of the Three Holy Children.”
That is a great goal. It is the execution that kills me — sorry for the pun.
He has everything in the natural order (“Earth and all stars…Hail wind and rain…”) along with everything in the human realm (“Steel and machines…Classrooms and labs…”) singing a new song to the Lord.
Well and good. I love the “Song of the Three Holy Children” and am happy to revisit it.
The problem comes from the fixed pattern Brokering chose to fit all this into. Each of the four stanzas has eight lines. The second and fifth line of every stanza has to begin with the word “Loud.”
Sometimes it is fine:
“Steel and machines,
Loud pounding hammers
Sing to the Lord a new song!”
But fully half of the time it is terrible:
“Earth and all stars,
Loud rushing planets…”
Okay, “loud” is sound, and sound is carried by air, and the planets rush through — vacuum. Planets rush through space with an austere and awesome silence. They are not loud.
“Classrooms and labs,
Loud boiling test tubes…”
I didn’t do that well in high school chemistry, but when we boiled stuff in test tubes it was pretty quiet.
“Knowledge and truth,
Loud sounding wisdom…”
Maybe in Proverbs 1:20 “Wisdom cries out in the street” but most of the time the loud voices are anything but wise. I wish wisdom were loud. Instead, as in Proverbs 2:2 I have to work to make my ear attentive to wisdom, and incline my heart to find it.
“Daughter and son,
Loud praying members…”
Not in a mainline church. And kind of not recommended by our Lord (Matt. 6:5-7).
The problem is that in four out of eight of these assertions the hymn is simply wrong. It asks me to sing something I know is false.
I know, I know. this is small-scale error.
But if a hymn or song is wrong about life — ordinary human living, life as we know it — why should I believe what it says about God and salvation?
Please, those of you who write music for the Church: Please tell the truth. Little stuff, big stuff, everything. (Same goes for the preachers out there.)
What is the most troubling thing you have encountered in the lyrics of a hymn or worship song?
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